Archive for the ‘Food & Beverage’ Category

New England Fisheries to Reopen, and the Missing Identity of Most Seafood

Photo by Jim Maragos, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Jim Maragos, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Some rights reserved.

The New England Fishery Management Council opened 5,000 square miles of protected waters off the coast of New England Thursday to new applications from commercial fishermen. These areas were closed in the 1990s to preserve habitat on the seafloor and give cod, haddock, and other species a safe place to spawn.

Fishermen have cheered the move, saying the 2010 adoption of a quota-based protection system made the geographic conservation areas an unnecessary restriction. Worried that 2013 will bring drastic cuts to the quotas for cod, haddock, and yellowtail flounder, industry groups will have to wait until January for the Council to review further fish stock data.

Environmentalists and scientists are concerned in particular because the protected areas provide a haven for older female fish that help increase stocks – but hope that the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, which has to approve the vote and is expected to act by May, will be more cautious.

Fish are also noteworthy this week with the news – or reminder – that seafood fraud is widespread. That means seafood is often labeled as something it is not, usually a cheaper look-alike. A new report by Oceana, an international organization dedicated to ocean conservation, finds that 39% of seafood from 81 grocery stores in New York City was not what appeared on the label, and that 100% of the 16 sushi restaurants investigated sold mislabeled fish. Last year, a Boston Globe investigation found a problem of similar scope.

The problem goes beyond economic duping. Consumers and diners are buying fish whose incorrect labeling might mean it was caught illegally or contains unlisted and illegal chemical additives. Enforcement, however, has focused on health claims, and individual restaurants know that they are at little or no risk of being caught.

Personally, I was glad to read the tuna steak I bought last week had been injected with carbon monoxide to keep its bright red hue. Many of us in Seattle enjoy our inexpensive Japanese cuisine, but the New York wholesaler quoted in the Times is right: “People want cheap sushi, and this is what happens.”

All Signs Point to a Farm Bill Reform

Photo by Andrew Ciscel. Some rights reserved.

This year, the 112th Congress is set to consider reauthorizing 2008’s Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 (known familiarly as the Farm Bill), as many of that Act’s provisions expire in 2012. This bill, a continuation of the 2002 Farm Bill, contained 15 titles covering a broad range of issues. Among other things, it provided grants to develop biorefineries, gave funding to the Rural Energy for America Program, increased benefits for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and established new research initiatives for specialty and organic crops.

… AND, amidst all of that, Title XII of the 2008 Farm Bill introduced a “permanent disaster assistance program” to insurance crops for farmers in the case of natural disasters, etc. A new study released by the Union of Concerned Scientists entitled “Ensuring the Harvest” argues for reform of the Crop Insurance and Disaster Assistance Programs on the basis that these provisions are not weighed fairly for smaller, organic farmers, favoring larger industrial farms that focus on planting larger quantities of one or two crops. The report points out that these insurance policies, as overseen by the US Department of Agriculture, operate on a per-crop basis, making it difficult for farmers who grow smaller amounts of many different crops who then have to apply for many separate policies.

In fact, organic farms were only recently given the option of receiving crop insurance, in the Agricultural Risk Protection Act of 2000 – prior to that Act, these small organic farms were considered too risky to insure. Since then, organic farmers have been forced to pay 5% surcharges as a way to account for the supposedly inherent risks associated with this kind of farming, though as agricultural economist Jeffery O’Hara pointed out in a recent New York Times article, there is no real evidence that there ARE greater risks associated with organic farming.

Meanwhile, a new survey from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation finds that three quarters of Americans support doubling the current minimum amount of financial support given by SNAP, while 70% of study participants said that they have purchased fresh produce from a farmer’s market in the past year (a statistic that supports the UCS study’s claim that smaller, organic farmers deserve more from the reformed Farm Bill). Grist has a nice, new infographic up explaining how Americans need to eat more fruits and vegetables, and how small farms support this effort.

Follow That Beef!

Photo by pseudoplacebo. Some rights reserved.

Late last week the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) announced an extension of the comment period for the proposed rule on animal disease traceability.

What proposed rule on animal disease traceability, you might ask?

The USDA press release explains it so:

Under the proposed rule, unless specifically exempted, livestock moved interstate would have to be officially identified and accompanied by an interstate certificate of veterinary inspection or other documentation, such as owner-shipper statements or brand certificates.  The proposed rule encourages the use of low-cost technology and specifies approved forms of official identification for each species, such as metal eartags for cattle.

Animal disease traceability, or knowing where diseased and at-risk animals are, where they’ve been, and when, is very important to ensure there can be a rapid response when animal disease events take place.  An efficient and accurate animal disease traceability system helps reduce the number of animals involved in an investigation, reduces the time needed to respond, and decreases the cost to producers and the government.

The comment period was extended to “allow interested persons additional time to prepare and submit comments.” However, the earlier comment deadline didn’t stop many interested persons from submitting feedback. On there are already 425 comments on the proposed rule.

Most are from farmers, like Lisa D’Alia, who share a similar sentiment:

“This id tracking regulation for livestock is unnecessary and puts an extreme burden of regulatory intrusion onto the farmer, especially in tour [sic] economic environment today.”

A handwritten and colorful note from Kerry Byme, the owner and operator of Hat Butte Ranch can be almost be deciphered to read:

“Please note that this proposed rule completely disregards U.S. livestock industry input and interests […] Your Gestapo tactics remove choice from our business and is [sic] highly reprehensible.”

At least one (self-identified) “private citizen,” Margaret Boyd, finds the regulation unnecessary:

“It is not needed as proved recently by the outbreak in the Cutting Horse world was traced easily and a country wide voluntary quarantine was handled by private citizens. It worked well as the spread was stopped.”

Another – at first glance – worries how the cost of compliance will affect her grocery bill:

“I am a local foods consumer. I am very concerned that the proposed rule will impose costs on my farmers that will then be passed on to me.”

However, the specifics of her demands suggest she does more than just shop for meat:

“Apply the requirements to breeding-age cattle only and exempt feeder cattle from all new requirements. Exempt all direct-to-slaughter cattle, both for custom and for retail sales. Recognize the brand as “official identification” among and between all states that currently have official state brand programs and “official supplementary identification” for all other states. Do not impose any new requirements for identifying poultry. There has simply been no showing that imposing new requirements on small-scale poultry operations is needed, while it will definitely cause significant harm. Provide that a physical description qualifies as an official identification method for horses without having to be approved by the health officials in the receiving State or Tribe.”

Funny that another “Local foods consumer,” Jennifer Hascall, had the exact same suggestions. In fact, a search in the comments for the exact (and ostensibly unique) phrase “Provide that a physical description qualifies as an official identification method” returns 81 distinct comments. Comment padding, anyone?

Should you like to offer some truly unique feedback, you now have until December 9, 2011, to do so.

Clones: Safe to Eat?

Although this document was released more than 3 years ago, it was recently modified so that it popped up in my Google reader. It is the USDA’s Statement in response to the FDA’s Risk Assessment on Animal Clones.

Photo of Dolly by Toni Barros. Some rights reserved.

And should you be wondering, the USDA’s response was positive:

“USDA fully supports and agrees with FDA’s final assessment that meat and milk from cattle, swine and goat clones pose no safety concerns, and these products are no different than food from traditionally bred animals.”

In fact, they compare cloning to artificial insemination:

“Many farmers and ranchers routinely use other assisted reproductive technologies such as artificial insemination, embryo transfer and in vitro fertilization to produce superior animals for milk, meat or breeding purposes. Cloning is another breeding technique that has evolved and has now been demonstrated to be safe. It is helpful in creating genetic twins of the very best animals who can transmit superior characteristics to their offspring and quickly improve a herd.”

However, despite the supposed safety, the USDA has not lifted the voluntary moratorium established in 2001 that urges producers to refrain from introducing meat or milk from clones or their progeny into the food supply. The USDA is supposedly in the process of determining “next steps.”

But when the moratorium lifts, ladies and gents, will you even know?

Maybe not. Sorry.

“FDA is not requiring any additional [labeling] measures relating to food derived from adult clones of cattle, swine, and goats, and the offspring of clones of any species traditionally consumed as food, including labeling. Under our current laws, FDA may require specific food labeling if there are any safety concerns, or if there is a material difference in the composition of food. We have not identified any food safety concerns, and we have found no material difference in food from clones as compared to food from conventionally bred animals […] Therefore, there is no science-based reason to use labels to distinguish between milk derived from clones and that from conventional animals.”
– FDA’s Consumer FAQs

Piqued your interest? The FDA has a whole section on their website devoted to animal cloning and answering the questions of the curious customer – find those answers here, along with the original FDA risk assessment.

Sweet Success for Saccharin Suppliers

Pepsico, Sweet’N Low, The Coca-Cola Company, Wrigley, and the others that make up the Calorie Control Council (CCC) are probably raising a sugar-free glass of something to toast the news that the EPA has removed saccharin from two different lists identifying the sweetener as “hazardous.”

Photo by Geoff Martin. Some rights reserved.

The Calorie Control Council – whose website tagline is “Healthy Eating & Exercise for Life” and devotes extensive real estate to Sugar Substitutes and Fat Replacers – petitioned the EPA in April 2003 for removal of saccharin from the lists of hazardous constituents (40 CFR 261, Appendix VII), hazardous wastes (40 CFR 261.33(f)), and hazardous substances (40 CFR 302.4).

In 1980, the EPA identified and listed saccharin as a potential human carcinogen based on the conclusions of key public health agencies such as the National Toxicology Program (NTP) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). However, as the CCC points out in their petition, these agencies have since re-evaluated the scientific evidence and now no longer consider saccharin a human carcinogen.* Seven years after the CCC’s petition, EPA published a rule proposing to amend all the regulations that list saccharin as hazardous, based on the agencies’ change of tune. The rule was finalized – after no objections were raised on the proposal – just this week.

Going forward, saccharin will be managed as a nonhazardous substance, the regulations for which, according to the EPA, “while still protective of human health and the environment, reduce paperwork and reporting requirements for generators and decrease the cost of waste management.” Sounds like a syrupy sweet deal for the CCC.


* Was it that simple? The science behind NTP’s decision was disputed (the review itself was prompted by a request from the CCC), and the IARC was accused of corruption by industry influence. In their own words, the CCC “has been working closely with regulatory authorities for many years to correct misunderstandings about the health issues surrounding consumption of saccharin.”

You can see the agencies’ current views here: NTP and IARC.

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